Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Masks of Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



Masks. Throughout North America masks were worn in ceremonies, usually religious or quasi-religious, but sometimes purely social in character. Sometimes the priests alone were masked, sometimes only those who took part, and again the entire company. In all cases the mask served to intensify the idea of the actual presence of the mythical animal or supernatural person. The simplest form of mask was one prepared from the head of an animal, as the buffalo, deer, or elk. These realistic masks did not stand for the actual buffalo, deer, or elk, but for the generic type, and the man within it was for the time endowed with or possessed of its essence or distinctive quality where the belief obtained that the mask enabled the wearer to identify himself for the time being with the supernatural being represented. A ceremony of purification took place when the mask was removed (Culin). Among the [Inuit] the belief prevailed "that in early days all animated beings had a dual existence, becoming at will either like man or the animal form they now wear; if an animal wished to assume its human form the forearm, wing or other limb was raised and pushed up the muzzle or beak as if it were a mask, and the creature became manlike in form and features. The idea is still held, and it is believed that many animals now possess this power. The manlike form thus appearing is called the inua , and is supposed to represent the thinking part of the creature, and at death becomes its shade." Many of the masks of the N. and the Pacific coast are made with double faces to illustrate this belief. "This is done by having the muzzle of the animal fitted over and concealing the face of the inua below, the outer mask being held in place by pegs so arranged that it can be removed quickly at a certain time in the ceremony, thus symbolising the transformation." Sometimes the head of a bird or animal towered above the face mask; for instance, one of the sand-bill crane was 30 inches long, the head and beak, with teeth projected at right angles, about 24 inch; the head was hollowed out to admit a small lamp which shone through the holes representing the eyes; below the slender neck, on the breast, was a human face. The shaman who fashioned this mask stated that once when be was alone on the tundra he saw a sandhill crane standing and looking at him. As he approached, the feathers on the breast of the bird parted, revealing the face of the bird's inua . In certain ceremonies women wore masks upon the finger of one hand. "The mask festival was held as a thanksgiving to the shades and powers of earth, air, and water for giving the hunters success." (Nelson in 18th Rep. B. A. E., 1899.)


In the N., on the Pacific coast, in the S.W., among some of the tribes of the plains, and among probably all the eastern tribes, including the ancient pile dwellers of Florida, masks made of wood, basketry, pottery or hide were carved, painted, and ornamented with shell, bark fibre, hair, or feathers. They might be either male or female. The colours used and the designs carved or painted were always symbolic, and varied with the mythology of the tribe. Frequently the mask was provided with an interior device by which the eyes or the mouth could be opened or closed, and sometimes the different parts of the mask were so hinged as to give the wearer power to change its aspect to represent the movement of the myth that was being ceremonially exemplified. With the sacred masks there were prescribed methods for consecration, handling, etc.; for instance, among the Hopi they were put on or off only with the left hand. This tribe, according to Fewkes, also observed rights of bodily purification before painting the masks. Some of the latter were a simple face covering, sometimes concealing only the forehead; to others was attached a helmet, symbolically painted. The Hopi made their masks of leather, cloth, or basketry, and adorned them with appendages of wood, bark, hair, woven fabrics, feathers, herbs, and bits of gourd, which were taken off at the close of the ceremony and deposited in some sacred place or shrine. The mask was not always worn; in one instance it was carried on a pole by a hidden man. Altars were formed by masks set in a row, and sacred meal was sprinkled upon them. The mask of the plumed serpent was spoken of as "quiet"; it could never be used for any purpose other than to represent this mythical creature; nor could it be repainted or adapted to any other purpose, as was sometimes done with other masks. Masks were sometimes spoken of as kachinas, as many of them represented these ancestral and mythical beings, and the youth who put on such a mask was temporarily transformed into the kachina represented. Paint rubbed from a sacred mask was regarded as efficacious in prayer, and men sometimes invoked their masks, thanking them for services rendered. Some of the Hopi masks are very old; others are made new yearly. Certain masks belong to certain clans and are in their keeping. No child not initiated is allowed to look upon a kachina with its mask removed, and certain masks must never be touched by pregnant women. Among the Hopi also a mask was placed over the face of the dead; in some instances it was a mere covering without form, in others it was made more nearly to fit the face. "A thin wad of cotton, in which is punched holes for the eyes, is laid upon the face. . . and is called a rain-cloud, or prayer to the dead to bring the rain." (Fawkes in 15th Rep. B. A. E., 1897.)


Young people sometimes indulged in festivities and made queer masks with which to disguise themselves; for example, masks of bladder or rawhide representing the head of the Thunder-bird were made by the boys of the poorer classes among some of the Siouan tribes when the thunder was first heard in the spring. Covering their heads and faces with the masks, the boys proceeded to their uncles' tents and, imitating the sound of thunder, struck the doorflaps with sticks. Then, with much merriment at the expense of the boys, the uncles invited them in and gave them presents of leggings, moccasins, or blankets. On the N. W. coast masks were occasionally made as toys for the amusement of children. But generally the mask was a serious representation of tribal beliefs, and all over the country the fundamental idea embodied in it seems to have been that herein described.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 277-278.



© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College